Poor Japan can’t get a break from the weather this year. First, a series of heavy rain and floods in June killed over 200 people (JP link). Once the rain passed, the punishing hot weather came in, with temperatures in Kumatani in Saitama Prefecture hitting 41.1 degrees celsius (nearly 106 Fahrenheit).
The repressive heat appears to be inspiring social change, as Japanese men to ditch previous social conventions around sun umbrellas (日傘; higasa).
The sun umbrella has a long history in Nippon. According to Wikipedia JP, Chinese-style umbrellas were brought over to Japan in 522 from Kudara. one of the old kingdoms of Korea, by the ambassador of King Seimei. Japan soon developed its own culture of umbrella making (和傘; wagasa), making umbrellas with a bamboo base, and an oil-based paper lacquered with persimmon seed, flaxseed, or other oils.
The use of sun umbrellas seems to be unique to Japan. In a 2016 article, Sankei Business chronicled (JP link) how a move for bihaku (美白; literally, “beautiful white” – clear skin undamaged by the sun) was leading to a resurgence of their use, and to a boom in domestic sales. Sun umbrellas were objectively better at blocking harmful UV radiation, a topic that began to enter Japanese consciousness in the 80s and 90s as the science around UV rays came to light. Additionally, many Japanese women grew concerned that not protecting one’s skin from the sun would lead to blotching and wrinkles later in life.
However, when Sankei interviewed female tourists from 9 different nations – including China – about sun umbrellas, the majority of women not only said they wouldn’t use a sun umbrella but had never used one in their lives. Most women from outside Japan preferred to wear hats, or simply lather themselves with sunscreen. Others used nothing, and dismissed the lack of a tan as “unhealthy”. In fact, in a survey done of foreigners, a full 46% listed sun umbrellas as the one strategy for sun prevention in Japan that surprised them the most.
Flash forward to this summer’s brutal heat, and, as Ikuta Aya from Huffington Post Japan reports, the trend toward sun umbrellas in Japan is growing – and it’s no longer just women using them. Stores have reported an overall six-fold increase in sales of sun umbrellas. Retailers such as Loft are explicitly marketing basic, one-color sun umbrellas to men as a way to cut the oppressive heat. For many salarymen, many of whom are expected to report to work in long sleeves and pants (or full suits) even in the summer, it’s little wonder this traditional Japanese item is experiencing a cross-gender boom.
However, in another article, Ikuta-san reports on survey results that paint a mixed picture of this social shift. While most people (87%) reported that they didn’t feel anything strange about seeing men with sun umbrellas, a full 47.3% of men still report resisting the idea of sporting an umbrella to beat the heat. Only 5.3% of Japanese women polled would hesitate to unfold a higasa on a hot day. In verbatim feedback, some women said they wished more men would use them, as it’s such a valuable item for keeping cool.
Given these results, it’s not hard to imagine the sun umbrella become a fully genderless item in the next five to 10 years. The next question is: Will we foreigners get over our apprehensions and 郷に入っては郷に従え (do as the Romans do) when we visit the country?